The Russia/Ukraine conflict has affected all areas of life, especially the world of sports. As noted in “The Russia/Ukraine Conflict and the Impact on Hockey” and “Meet Dan Milstein: The Ukrainian-Born Super-Agent Representing Majority of NHL’s Russian Players,” this conflict has had a significant impact on the sport of hockey. Described in an article mentioned above, the KHL teams located in Finland and Latvia have withdrawn from the league in protest.
Along with teams withdrawing from the league, several non-Russian players in the KHL have cancelled their contracts just days into the league’s playoff schedule. Some players on playoff teams who have terminated their contracts include: Harri Sateri, Philip Larsen, Temmu Hartikainen, Joakin Nordstrom, Lucas Wallmark, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Juha Metsola. These terminations came just days after former NHL forwards Markus Granland, Geoff Platt, Nick Shore, Kenny Agostino, and Shane Price all cancelled their contracts with their respective clubs. Since his contract cancellation, Shane Price has signed with Lugano of the Swiss league. Also, KHL players are paid in rubles and the currency is currently falling. Agents operating in Russia have begun to fear for the long-term viability of the league.
On March 7, 2022, the NHL suspended its dealings with the KHL, making it much more difficult to sign players from there. The NHL told its teams to cease contact with KHL counterparts and Russia-based agents. As a result, NHL drafted players and non-Russian born players currently playing in the KHL may have a difficult time signing a contract in North America if they were to attempt to cancel their contracts with the KHL. The NHL, however, will still honor existing player contracts. These events will prove interesting for the NHL Draft. There is a chance Russian-born players will be denied status to play in the NHL. If this were to happen, where would top Russian prospects play? If these prospects simply played in the KHL instead of entering the NHL Draft, would they ever want to sign an NHL contract when the prohibition on Russian-born players is lifted?
Former NHL player Jake Virtanen is one of the latest to have his contract terminated in the KHL. On March 7, 2022, Spartak Moscow announced that Virtanen has been released from the club due to a “breach of contract.” According to Sport Express in Russia, he will have to pay two-thirds of the remaining amount of the contract for violating the terms of the agreement. It is unclear why Virtanen’s contract was terminated, but it is likely related to the war in Ukraine. The government has advised Canadians to leave Russia while they still can.
Virtanen is an interesting case because he is only 25 years old and was drafted 6th overall in the 2014 NHL draft. He spent six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and played over 300 games for the club, notching 100 points. Virtanen signed a one-year contract with Spartak Moscow in September 2021, after being placed on unconditional waivers by Vancouver for the purposes of a buyout. Vancouver placed Virtanen on leave in May 2021, following allegations of sexual misconduct. Now that his contract with the KHL is terminated, Virtanen is free to sign with any professional organization. However, given his current legal situation, it is unclear whether another NHL or other professional hockey organization will choose to sign him until the matter is resolved. Virtanen is still regarded as a very talented hockey player and he is good enough to make a number of NHL rosters. It will be interesting to see whether an NHL team will take a chance on him now that he is clear of any contractual obligations with the KHL.
Currently, there does not appear to be anything restricting players who have terminated their contracts with the KHL from pursuing contracts in other leagues, including the NHL. Although the NHL has suspended dealings with the KHL, teams will still be able to sign free agents from the KHL as long as they are clear of any contractual obligations. If an NHL team wishes to sign a KHL free agent, they must first obtain the player’s NHL eligibility status from the Central Registry. However, the vast majority of players who have terminated their contracts have either never played in the NHL or are considered “older” hockey players who have already exhausted their NHL options. It is unlikely that any of the players who terminated their contracts in the KHL will return to play in the NHL, however, some may attempt to sign a contract in the AHL or the ECHL. The most likely path, one similar to that of Shane Price, is to sign a contract with another European league, perhaps in Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, or Germany.
It will be interesting to see if the trend of non-Russian born players in KHL terminating their contracts will continue. Will all of the non-Russian born players attempt to terminate their contracts or breach their contracts in order to leave Russia? Further, it will be interesting to see how the KHL responds to these actions given the current state of the league. Will the KHL be able to survive a season where two teams withdrew and a number of prominent players terminated their contracts with their respective teams? Finally, where will the players who terminated their contracts play next: North America, somewhere in Europe, or will this be the end of their playing days for good?